St. Thomas Approved for Historic Move from NCAA Division III to Division I

The University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., has been approved by the NCAA to transition from Division III to Division I. While we’ve seen programs (UCSD, for example) make the switch from Division II to Division I, this will be the first transition from Division III in modern history.

St. Thomas will become the first private D-I university in the state of Minnesota, and the second D-I school overall, joining the University of Minnesota.

This news comes just over a year after the school was told it would be ‘involuntarily removed from membership’ from the Minnesota Interscholastic Athletic Conference (MIAC), by conference officials. The school’s fan base believes this was due to St. Thomas athletics being incredibly successful; their football team has been top of the conference almost every year since 2010, though they spend over $1.1 million on football annually and their 6,000-plus student body is far bigger than any other school in the conference.

In any case, St. Thomas was told the conference would itself disband if the school did not leave the league. According to the release from St. Thomas, athletic teams will be able to compete in their new respective Division I conferences as soon as the 2021-22 season. That means they’ll have one season left (in whatever way the 2020-21 season manifests itself despite the pandemic) in the MIAC, one of the stronger D-III swimming conferences nationally.

Most sports, including men’s and women’s swimming and diving, will head to the Summit League. As far as swimming goes, the St. Thomas men won their first MIAC crown in 56 years in 2010, and have won conference titles six times since then (and if they haven’t won, they’ve finished second). The women won their first MIAC title in 2016, then won three straight after that before finishing second in 2020.

St. Thomas’s swimming & diving programs will soon compete with the following teams in the Summit League:

  • Denver
  • South Dakota State
  • South Dakota
  • Nebraska-Omaha (women-only)
  • Eastern Illinois
  • Western Illinois
  • Valparaiso

Football will compete in the Pioneer Football League, women’s hockey in the Women’s Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), and men’s hockey is currently undecided. Enrollment-wise, St. Thomas will go from the largest in the MIAC to one of the smaller schools in the Summit League.

Typically, the D-III to D-I transition process has been a 12-year drudge that involves first re-classifying to Division II before finally landing at Division I status.

But in June, the NCAA proposed a plan to carve out a direct process for D-III schools to go straight to D-I on a much faster timeline. While a final vote on this process won’t happen until April 2021, St. Thomas was granted approval by waiver by the NCAA on their fast-tracked transition.

Read below the full open letter from St. Thomas president Julie Sullivan.

Dear St. Thomas community,

Today, we received long-awaited news from the NCAA that St. Thomas has been approved to begin reclassification to Division I athletics. This announcement paves the way for our St. Thomas student-athletes, coaches, fans and community to build Minnesota’s first private D-I collegiate athletics program and just the second D-I program in the state.

St. Thomas is the first university that has been approved to transition directly to D-I from D-III in the modern history of the NCAA. This approval recognizes St. Thomas’ growing reputation and academic and athletic success and will help us expand our mission and impact beyond Minnesota.

With this news, we enthusiastically accept invitations to join the Summit League for 19 of our 22 sports, as well as the Pioneer Football League and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) women’s league. We also are excited about conference options for our men’s hockey program.

What this transition does not mean is a change in our St. Thomas values or our mission. Our commitment to academic excellence and personalized education will remain unchanged. We expect strong performance on the playing fields, courts and pools, in the classroom and in the community. In fact, as athletics helps us draw from a more geographically diverse student population, our mission to graduate students who think critically, act wisely and work skillfully will only expand.

Our journey to this moment started more than a year ago. In May 2019, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) involuntarily removed St. Thomas from the conference, creating a need to find a new athletics home by June 20, 2021. The search – guided by Vice President and Director of Athletics Phil Esten, and informed by feedback from an Athletic Advisory Committee comprised of faculty, staff and administration – concluded with a bold decision by the St. Thomas Board of Trustees to seek reclassification directly to D-I. As St. Thomas Board Chair Pat Ryan said: “This decision represents an important milestone for the future of our institution; one I’m confident we will look back on as pivotal to extending the impact of St. Thomas nationally.”

The funding for the transition to D-I will primarily come from philanthropy, incremental athletics revenue and start-up funds authorized by the Board of Trustees. The transition period will be managed and timed to ensure that new expenses are phased in and do not dilute academic excellence in any way.

Additionally, this news comes while we are working diligently to safely reopen our campus in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and to accelerate efforts to rid our institution and our society of systemic racism and social injustice. I assure you that we will remain focused on these critical efforts, and I commit to continuing to provide you with regular updates on this work.

While COVID-19 may prevent us from celebrating the way we originally envisioned, we are nonetheless excited for the future of our university, and for Tommie athletics. A celebratory video, links to the press release and FAQs can be found here, and additional resources can be found on OneStThomas (a St. Thomas email address is required).

Forward to D-I. Forward to our future. St. Thomas has a long history of embracing change with an entrepreneurial spirit, and this move fits that trajectory. We will continue to stay relevant and strong in a world of change. As our founder, Archbishop John Ireland, reminds us, “I believe God intends the present to be better than the past and the future to be better than the present.” (A video that brings this story to life can be viewed here.)

In this spirit, we ever press forward.

Warm regards,
Julie H. Sullivan, Ph.D.

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11 months ago

With the number of swim teams disappearing, I think this is monumental. Good for you St. Thomas! What a great opportunity to be part of something special. Officially on my 2021’s list!

Reply to  Anonymous
11 months ago

See how long UMN lasts as the best D1 team in the state… Give it 5 years if UMN coaching stays the same.

Reply to  Hmmm
11 months ago


Reply to  Anonymous
11 months ago

Anonymous – the jump to D1 wasn’t totally by choice, certainly not the timing. UST was basically voted out of its MN D3 conference. I think eventually it will do fine in the non-major sports (like swimming), and perhaps even basketball and probably hockey (MN already has 5 D1 hockey programs, but can always load up with Canadians looking for US college). Interested to see how long it takes them to step up in football. They will need to raise a bunch of money, but I think the school has the donor capacity to pull it off.

11 months ago

Didn’t Davidson transition from DIII to DI??

Reply to  GoRoyals
11 months ago

Don’t think so. They were in the Southern Conference from 1936 until 2013, when they joined the A10, and the Southern Conference has always been a Division I conference.

Ur boy jeff
11 months ago

Finally John Gahnz will get some real competition!

Good luck
Reply to  Ur boy jeff
11 months ago

You know he goes like 55 in his 100 back in a dual meet right? Let me know how he stacks up against DU

Reply to  Good luck
11 months ago

The U will prevail

Andy Hardt
Reply to  Good luck
11 months ago

I don’t know…never count out a move to D1 to change 5’s to 4’s! 😉

Weird flex, but okay
Reply to  Ur boy jeff
11 months ago

Weird flex as he always got beat by St. Olaf backstrokers 🤷🏼‍♀️

About Karl Ortegon

Karl Ortegon

Karl Ortegon studied sociology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, graduating in May of 2018. He began swimming on a club team in first grade and swam four years for Wesleyan.

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